Mick Jagger said it best: You can’t always get what you want.
Cinephiles felt this disappointment acutely in early January when the 92nd Academy Award nominations arrived. Taking their outrage to Twitter, they lobbed 240-character firebombs at AMPAS, undeserving directors and the entire Hollywood system itself. I count myself among these disgruntled film fanatics, stunned that Oscar voters completely disregarded my 2019 favorites — Uncut Gems, The Farewell, Hustlers, Booksmart — in favor of the familiar veterans they’ve been exalting for 30 years. When you’re frustrated with who gets to be canonized in the cultural imagination and who doesn’t, it can be fun to snark away that core feeling of betrayal, like an oyster building a pearl around a niggling grain of sand.
But my umbrage made a hairpin turn when I started to see a different flavor of discourse slink across my social media feeds, one that questions the value of awards shows altogether. To paraphrase one post I saw, “Oscars are bad for movies. Tonys are bad for plays. Grammys are bad for music.” The writer called for folks to “unplug” from the awards frenzy, as audiences keep letting the gatekeepers at the top dictate their tastes and who gets to have a voice in Hollywood at all. I empathize with this sentiment, as I’m similarly exasperated at the choices of a homogenous group of industry insiders whose palates skew white and male, but it ultimately indicts the wrong stakeholders. Awards shows remain a vital touchpoint in the vast financial ecosystem that keeps show business afloat.
Simply, awards are a numbers game (and a marketing event). Sure, the Oscars like films that make a lot of dough from the outset (as evidenced by this year’s crop of box-office hits like Joker, Ford v Ferrari and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood). But once a film receives a nomination, it also typically gets an “awards bump” — a surge in profits from folks who trek to theaters (or, increasingly, their on-demand accounts) to see what all the fuss is about.
While this income bump has somewhat diminished in the digital age, especially as DVD sales and broadcast TV licensing deals atrophy, economics researchers have found that honored filmmakers are nearly a surefire predictor for future studio revenue. According to a collaborative study from researchers at New York University’s Stern School of Business, New York City’s Yeshiva University and the University of Arizona, data shows that experienced directors drive the financial value of a project far more than other factors, including star power. As finance scholar S. Abraham Ravid explained on radio show Knowledge@Wharton, “In other words, if you’re a studio, you’re much better off hiring the director or the writer, rather than the actors.” As my father would say, follow the money trail.
And you can do more good in the world with money than without it. Awards revenues help funnel money to films that would otherwise be forgotten and fund niche ideas that would otherwise be ignored. For example, the Oscars lifted director Debra Granik’s profile and made a star of Jennifer Lawrence in 2010 when $2 million Sundance sensation Winter’s Bone ended up with four nominations. The film has, in turn, paved the way for female auteurs like Kelly Reichardt (Certain Women) and Chloé Zhao to gain cred in the industry. Zhao’s lauded indie western The Rider and its subsequent Independent Spirit Awards nominations helped land her a gig helming Marvel’s big-budget The Eternals.
Film critics can grumble all we want about prestige-thirsty films like Joker grossing over $1 billion and landing 11 Academy Award nominations, but tentpole flicks like this help studios raise money to support smaller and more diverse and/or inclusive movies such as Just Mercy and In the Heights, which were also co-produced by Warner Bros. Awards shows aren’t just for hobbyists or professionals with an encyclopedic knowledge of the industry, but also for people who just want to discover new movies for the pure entertainment factor. It may be popular these days to slam a project as gauchely “middlebrow” to undermine anyone whose tastes fall in line with the mainstream, but this pervasive snobbery merely reminds me that we entertainment writers exist in a bubble.
A dearth of prestigious awards doesn’t take away the vitality of Adam Sandler’s career-best performance in Uncut Gems or the emotional heft of Lulu Wang’s masterful writing in The Farewell. I implore AMPAS to make more concerted efforts to diversify its membership demographics so that new stories and storytellers can be anointed in showbiz, but I cannot pretend the Oscars are irrelevant because I disapprove of their selections.
Hollywood is a business — if you want production companies, studios and distributors to back the up-and-coming filmmakers you love, then you also need to acknowledge the magnitude of the big, lumbering players who keep the money rolling in.
This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.